Blue Jays Add Tulo, Try to Bludgeon Way into Playoffs

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The Toronto Blue Jays, featuring MLB’s best offense (5.28 runs per game) but few standouts on the mound (4.33 runs allowed per game, 10th-worst), have been connected to a plethora of starting pitchers who could be moved prior to Friday’s trade deadline. The Jays might still add an arm, but they decided to bolster their odds of experiencing playoff baseball for the first time since Joe Carter‘s World Series-winning walk off in 1993 by bludgeoning AL East opponents into submission. Toronto has reportedly acquired shortstop Troy Tulowitzki from the Rockies (along with reliever LaTroy Hawkins) in exchange for shortstop Jose Reyes and three minor leaguers, including right-handers Jeff Hoffman and Miguel Castro.

By picking up Tulowitzki, the Jays have essentially added $50 million in future payroll commitments (the difference between the roughly $100 million in guaranteed cash owed to the Rockies star from 2016-20, and Reyes’ $50 million price tag through 2017) while also surrendering at least two touted prospects. Hoffman, 22, has recovered from Tommy John surgery that caused him to slip to 9th overall in the 2014 draft and recently ranked 33rd on Baseball America’s mid-season prospect list. The 20-year-old Castro, meanwhile, opened the 2015 season as a reliever in the majors but has since returned to Triple-A to see if he can remain a starter by complementing his wicked fastball-changeup combo with passable breaking stuff.

How much will the trade boost Toronto’s playoff odds in 2015? That depends on which version of Tulo shows up at the Rogers Centre — the undisputed best (if brittle) shortstop that we witnessed during his twenties, or the good-not-great model on display since he returned from left hip surgery that cut short his Honus Wagner-esque 2014 campaign.

Make no mistake — an underachieving Tulo is still better than most shortstops in the majors. Tulowitzki’s park and league-adjusted OPS is 14% above the MLB average in 2015, which is tied with Jose Iglesias for third among players at the position behind Brandon Crawford (126 OPS+) and Jhonny Peralta (124). With 1.9 Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement, Tulo places ninth among shortstops in all-around hitting, fielding, and base running value. But on both sides of the ball, he has taken a step back this season.

Tulowitzki’s 114 OPS+, while impressive, is the third-lowest full-season mark of his MLB tenure and below his career 124 average. Typically patient at the plate (he chased just 23% of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone from 2012-14, while drawing walks in 11.6% of his plate appearances), the longtime Rockies stud has expanded his strike zone this year (28% chase rate, 6.8% walk rate). He’s also not making as much hard contact versus fastballs (.445 slugging percentage in 2015, .585 from 2012-14) and changeups (.217 in 2015, .632 from 2012-14). Defensively, he rates as average in 2015 according to Baseball Info Solutions, and has cost his club some runs according to Ultimate Zone Rating (-4 compared to an average shortstop). That’s well below the two-time Gold Glove winners usual standards (+12 runs per 150 games per Baseball Info Solutions, +4.5 per UZR).

Realistically, Tulowitzki might not reach the same heights as time and myriad past injuries exact a toll on his 30-year-old body. But even so, he projects to be worth an extra win in the standings for the Jays this season compared to the man he replaced (Tulo is projected for 1.7 WAR through the end of 2015 according to the ZiPS forecast system, versus 0.9 WAR for Reyes). Will that be enough of an upgrade for Toronto, whose current playoff odds sit at around 35%? We’ll see. But if the Jays’ postseason drought extends to 22 years, it sure won’t be for a lack of offensive firepower.